Mason Foster's favorite NFL player, the one he tried to emulate, was Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Derrick Brooks. Adrian Clayborn went into draft weekend hoping the Buccaneers would be the team calling his name. Allen Bradford "fell in love" with the Bucs and their coaching staff during the 2011 Senior Bowl.
But only Ahmad Black, among the eight players Tampa Bay selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, is truly coming home.
The former University of Florida safety comes by his Buccaneer fandom naturally; this is no bandwagon-jumper. He grew up in nearby Lakeland and was tuned in during the glory days of the late '90s and early '00s, which included Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII championship.
He even had an in that almost made him feel like a part of the Buccaneer family, as his aunt, Sabrina Valdez-Collins, was a long-time member of the Bucs' cheerleading team. That got him into certain team functions, where he met the likes of Brooks and Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Warrick Dunn. Heroes to a young Tampa Bay fan.
"Those guys who were friendly to me when I was little made me like the team even more," said Black, who was like many thousands of Buccaneer fans in idolizing one player in particular. "I was always [a Mike] Alstott type of guy. I liked the way he ran the ball so powerfully."
Lynch may not have seen his eventual successor when he met young Ahmad Black 10 or 12 years ago. Black wasn't the biggest kid, and still isn't. Brooks surely didn't know he was shaking hands with a future Buccaneer, either, but in retrospect he could probably empathize with Black's story. After all, is there a more famous "undersized" draft pick in franchise history?
It's such ancient history for Brooks, who not only is headed for the Hall of Fame (one assumes) but also helped redefine the linebacker position so that his size as a rookie in 1995 – about 6-0 and 230 pounds – isn't even considered a liability anymore. But those measurables definitely played a part in Brooks' slip to the end of Round One in the '95 draft, where the Bucs eagerly traded back up to get the Florida State star and thoroughly transformed the team's future.
At the moment, Black is still where Brooks was in 1995, before he played 224 games and racked up tackles and major awards at an equal pace. Heck, Black is where Cody Grimm was just a year ago, when the Bucs took the 5-11 safety out of Virginia Tech in the seventh round. After proving he was a viable starter in the NFL with his strong rookie performance, Grimm is now just thought of as "a football player."
Black has already made that transformation once, during his four years at Florida. After helping the Lakeland High Dreadnaughts win three straight Florida Class 5A state championships and two USA Today national championships, Black arrived in Gainesville to skepticism from his own coach, Urban Meyer. According to the new Buccaneer, Meyer expressed doubt that Black would ever see the field for the Gators after seeing the newcomer's slight frame.
Said Chuck Heater, the Gators' safeties coach: "At the beginning, no one would've bought a lot of stock in him."
By 2010, Black was Florida's top defensive player and a Meyer favorite (the feeling was mutual). He was a first-team All-SEC choice as a senior, a second-team AP All-American and the sixth-leading active interceptor in the land at the end of 2010. After seeing just a brief bit of action as a freshman in 2007, these were Black's numbers over the last three years for the Gators: 237 tackles, 13 interceptions, 15 passes defensed, two sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 362 interception return yards.
Black thought those numbers might lead to his name being called on one of the first two days of the draft, but he had to wait until Round Five on Saturday. The Bucs snapped him up at #151 overall to an immediate chorus of "great value" reviews.
"Coming off of my last couple of years at Florida, I thought I would be picked a little earlier. A few little things set me back – some of the measurables – but I just wanted a chance, and I appreciate the opportunity."
Black knew those measurables were his height (5-9) and his weight (190). He heard questions about those two numbers again and again at the Combine and at the Senior Bowl, and he admits it was frustrating at times. But his production certainly couldn't be questioned, and scouts loved his instincts and his passion. Black believes the latter descriptors will far outweigh the former in the long run.
"I'm a football player," he said. "Football is football. At the end of the day, it's just about getting to the ball."
That's what Cody Grimm proved he could do last year, and what Black did repeatedly at Florida. Scouts say he has an innate understanding of angles and a strong ability to divine a quarterback's attention. That's why he was so often in the middle of the action downfield even without the type of top-end speed that sets the Combine abuzz. When Black gets his hands on the ball, he knows what to do with it, averaging more than 27 yards per interception return and scoring four times. The last of those was an 80-yard touchdown in the Outback Bowl win over Penn State that sealed the Gators' victory and made him the game MVP.
Black is also a sure and willing tackler despite his perceived size disadvantage. He's a true hitter, and not just because he has a heart for it. Black has worked hard on his craft.
"I've been practicing, practicing, practicing," he said. "We tackled all the time [at Florida]. A lot of people ask me how I get so good at tackling and what I do differently. It's not what I do differently, it's that we practiced it a lot. What we learned in practice, I bring to the games. I'm everywhere the ball is. I just like to be out there."
That strong work ethic and his love for the game were no small part of the Buccaneers' glowing scouting report on Black. They also put a lot of value in the fact that a powerful Florida program chose him as a team captain. Black's decision to return for his senior year, made in part due to the Gators' loss in the SEC Championship Game, hinted at his desire to finish any job he starts.
It also impressed his UF teammates.
"He has the biggest heart I've ever seen," said Gator linebacker Brandon Hicks last November. "He's what a true leader is. He's going to go out and play every play like it's his last."
Last fall, Black led the entire Florida defense with 108 tackles and added five interceptions and 11 tackles for loss. Two of those picks came in that Outback Bowl capper, the perfect finish to his career, not to mention a nice transition to his new NFL home in that it was played at Raymond James Stadium.
"To go out [as MVP] was really strong and a great way to finish," said Black. "I had a lot of fun playing in [Raymond James Stadium] and I'll be playing there in the future."
In what capacity he'll be helping the Buccaneers will be determined over time. The team believes he can excel on special teams right away, which is the best way for a young player to make sure he gets his foot in the door. He may also find a role in nickel packages or even compete for a starting job. Veterans Sean Jones and Corey Lynch return and Grimm should be fully recovered from the injury that shortened his fine rookie campaign, but there is no way to predict what the team will get from Tanard Jackson. Head Coach Raheem Morris has always preferred to start a season with at least three safeties he considers starting-caliber players, even if there are only two starting spots available.
Morris also likes players who can help with what he considers the two most important goals for his defense: Score and get the ball back. If Black can do that, Morris won't care any more about the safety's size than he does about any other "statistic." And at Florida, at least, Black proved he was more than capable of getting the ball back and putting it in the end zone.
Given what the Buccaneers are building on defense overall, Black sees an opportunity to do a lot more of that in Tampa.
"I saw the picks they had earlier [in the draft]; it's great," he said. "The young defensive line we've got here, that Coach is building up, is great. I can't wait to play behind them and have them get some pressure in to give me some interceptions."
He likely can't wait to put on the uniform of his favorite NFL team for the first time, either. On the same day that the 2011 draft began, Black set up a new Twitter account, which quickly picked up more than a thousand followers. His very first tweet on the account may have referred to his return to the popular social networking site, but it might very well have been a nod to the way his football career his taken him full circle.
That tweet: "I'm back…AGAIN lol."